Friday, January 13, 2017

Using Your Past to Build a Story

Under the Christmas tree, my hubby put a little white and green box. He is the family ancestry person and has done well with his family tree, but now wants to delve more into mine. Thus, the little white box. It is a DNA kit for one of the online ancestry sites.
DNA kit to analyze where my ancestors lived and to find links to others who have sent in their DNA.
 I picked up the box and started to unpack it, all the time thinking about how it could lead to interesting places. In our house, whenever we look back, we seem to find little mysteries that are fun to hunt out and solve. Hubby uncovered a direct ancestor who was one of three commissioners who started Texas A&M. Who knew? Pretty cool, eh? There just might be a good story in how creating the college came about.
Texas A&M in 1902
Then there is the ancestor from Georgia whose husband died in the Civil War. Oddly the husband left his estate to their infant daughter. Hmm. The wife was named as executor, but the grandparents had to put up a bond for the money (likely in confederate dollars). Within a year, the mother had married, moved to Mississippi, and drowned in the Mississippi River. So many possible stories or version of a tale could come from this. Did her mother perhaps have mental issues? Did she commit suicide, have an accident after finally finding love again, or was she drowned? And how did the daughter’s inheritance fit into the picture? The young daughter then lived with her stepfather who remarried and had more children. The girl lived with them to the legal age of sixteen. The next data we discovered on her showed her married that same year, and back in Georgia where her grandparents lived. What would it have been like for the daughter living with two step parents…perhaps one who may have been the cause of her mother’s demise? Or was it a simple case of the daughter not wanting to babysit younger step-siblings so fled at the first possible moment. And last, but not least, was there any money left for her to go back to…or was it all worthless after the war.

Several years ago, I also had fun with another mystery related to an old photo dug up by husband that related to one of his distance cousin. He gave me a photo of a lovely woman (cousin) standing with a dapper young man holding a round straw hat in front of a biplane. No one knew when or where the photo had been taken, what kind of biplane it was, or even why they were posing in front of it. Oh, I do love a mystery. With a online investigation leading to little info, I put a call out to aviation friends. Responses led to photo enhancement, which triggered the first clues. From then on, the internet uncovered a history with a great story and only a possible two-year window. Eventually I followed up with a trip to the Smithsonian Air & Space museum to get photos of a similar (but newer model) plane, and a few good guesses from aviation hubby filled in the blanks as to what the couple might be celebrating. We still don’t know everything, but the story related to the start of Airmail service and the first planes that flew it. You can read more about The Case of the Mysterious Biplane in another blog. Seems like this tale belongs to the past, but just this last week, my blog was discovered by a relative of the family that built the biplane. He is still a biplane enthusiast/pilot today, and I learned only one of these planes still exists. So many ways to build a story from that one photograph.
A biplane with a lovely couple likely from the 1920s. Who were they and why the photo?
An observant character might also see something that triggers a story. We were visiting our son at the Air Force Academy in Colorado years ago and took him to a local restaurant in an old train station downtown. I got talking about my great-grandfather who had been a tailor on one of the main streets in town. Later my son and I noticed the decorations on the old wall were posters of photographs from the city in the 1920s. Didn’t take long to find one with a sign that had great-grandpa’s name. Each of his great-grandkids have at least one or more of his tailor tools and now a copy of this photo I obtained from a city library archive. What if your character was left something from a past ancestor? What might it be and why?
Son in front of a photo of his great-great-grandfather's tailor shop he discovered on a restaurant wall.

Then there was a grandfather’s half-brother who had two children, both who went to hubby’s alma mater where we discovered their photos. We wondered why no one in the family had mentioned them before. After two years at the university, the younger brother joined the Army-Air Corps and died during the war. Again, with some investigation, Facebook, and email with military historians, the history of his life and time in a flying unit came to life…as did his heroic death. A unit history documented the mission when the cousin died. They were flying a bombing raid on a rail yard in Hungry when the plane was hit by flak and the pilot killed. As the flight engineer bailed out, he could see the co-pilot (hubby’s cousin) was still alive and flying the plane so the others could get out. Only the flight engineer survived to tell the relate the details. What a great story! What drove a young engineering student to go to war, learn to fly, and die in battle? Who did he leave behind?

Whether you write mysteries, thrillers, romance, or a mix, true life can create wonderful background for characters, give ideas for plots with plenty of twists, or even lay out family logistics for a novel. There is no better way to create a character’s blessings, heartbreaks, and mysteries than looking into your own past. Good hunting!

10 comments:

Julie Moffett said...

I wish I could post the photos of great grandpa's tailor tools hanging on the wall to compliment your story. This is such a cool blog post! Absolutely adore it. Thanks for sharing.

Anne Marie Becker said...

Fascinating look back! Thank you for sharing. I love the old pictures and imagining what it must have been like to live in such times.

Sandy Parks said...

Thanks, Anne Marie. While the past is fascinating, I'm glad to live in today's world. I'm sure our future family members will think we lived in the dark ages. Lol.

Marcelle Dubé said...

What an interesting post, Sandy! Thanks for sharing your research and sparking so many ideas!

Sandy Parks said...

Thanks, Marcelle.

Billie Jackson said...

A fascinating blog. I have always loved research and could imagine the fun and frustration of your searches! Thanks for sharing the journeys.

jean harrington said...

Interesting, Sandy, and fuel for a number of books!

Rita said...

WoW! I LOVE these kinds of stories. I have history on both my parents side and hubs family. Lots of photos and documents. Odd thing is the very different stories you get talking to different members of the family. I am still working on a couple of mysteries. I'm pretty sure I have the answer but no real proof. Only snatches here and there.

Sandy Parks said...

Rita- That's what we've discovered, too. One family member gushed over an ancester who had served his country, but from what we can find he got a dishonorable discharge for counting recruits that didn't materialize and selling mules for cash. Don't know why, but certainly is a different picture.

Sandy Parks said...

Thanks, Billie, Anne Marie, and Billie. Spilling secrets is fun.